Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Precision Prayer, and Niddah and Trauma Bava Metzia 106-107


The Power of Precision in Prayer

Our Gemara on this Amud discusses a variety of misfortunes, and under what circumstances prayer is most or less effective. This occurs within the legal context of a tenant farmer and the landlord’s experience of an agricultural disaster, such as locust or scorching winds. Some of the factors include whether the tenant farmer kept to their agreement or not, and a post facto evaluation of what would have happened if he stuck with the agreement. The Gemara evaluates both the physical and metaphysical:

אֲמַר לֵיהּ: זִרְעַהּ חִיטֵּי, וַאֲזַל הוּא וְזַרְעַהּ שְׂעָרֵי, וְאִשְׁתְּדוּף רוּבָּא דְבָאגָא, וְאִשְׁתְּדוּף נָמֵי הָנָךְ שְׂעָרֵי דִּילֵיהּ, מַאי? מִי אָמְרִינַן דְּאָמַר לֵיהּ: אִילּוּ זְרַעְתַּהּ חִיטֵּי הֲוָה נָמֵי מִשְׁתַּדְפָא, אוֹ דִלְמָא מָצֵי אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אִילּוּ זְרַעְתַּהּ חִיטֵּי הֲוָה מִקַּיַּים בִּי ״וְתִגְזַר אֹמֶר וְיָקׇם לָךְ״?

If the owner said to the tenant farmer: Plant the field with wheat, and he went and planted it with barley, and most of the valley was wind blasted, and these fields with barley of his were also wind blasted, what is the halakha? Do we say that the tenant farmer can say to him: Even if I had planted it with wheat it would likewise have been wind blasted, as all the surrounding fields suffered the same fate, or perhaps the owner can say to him: Had you planted it with wheat, the following verse would have been fulfilled for me: “And you shall decree a matter and it will be established for you, and the light shall shine upon your ways” (Job 22:28), since you might have merited greater success by following my wishes.

מִסְתַּבְּרָא דְּאָמַר לֵיהּ: אִי זְרַעְתַּהּ חִיטֵּי הֲוָה מִקַּיַּים בִּי ״וְתִגְזַר אֹמֶר וְיָקׇם לָךְ וְעַל דְּרָכֶיךָ נָגַהּ אוֹר״.

The Gemara responds: It stands to reason that the owner can say to him: Had you planted it with wheat it would have fulfilled for me: “And you shall decree a matter and it will be established for you, and the light shall shine upon your ways.

Imagine that. The Gemara seems to believe that technical words of the prayer matter. Even though the person could have had the most sincere and devout supplications, if he mistakenly prayed for the wrong thing, the prayers are still weakened and disrupted. We will see more about this later.

The Gemara goes on to discuss other claims of exemption from the tenant farmer but also in light of the prayer, and/or spiritual possibilities of the landlord, and how that might affect liabilities:

אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: לֹא שָׁנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁזְּרָעָהּ וְצִמְּחָה וַאֲכָלָהּ חָגָב. אֲבָל לֹא זְרָעָהּ כְּלָל – לָא, דְּאָמַר לֵיהּ: אִילּוּ זְרַעְתַּהּ הֲוָה מִקַּיַּים בִּי ״לֹא יֵבֹשׁוּ בְּעֵת רָעָה וּבִימֵי רְעָבוֹן יִשְׂבָּעוּ״.

Shmuel said: They taught the halakha that if there is a regional disaster the cultivator subtracts from the produce he owes as part of his tenancy only if the tenant planted the field and it sprouted and then grasshoppers consumed it, or if he planted it with a different seed, but if he did not plant it at all, the tenant is not entitled to subtract from the amount he owes even if there was a regional disaster. This is because the owner can say to him: Had you planted it, perhaps my merit would have prevented the field from being affected by the epidemic, and the following verse would have been fulfilled for me: “They will not be shamed in the time of evil, and in the days of famine they shall be satisfied” (Psalms 37:19).

מֵתִיב רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: רוֹעֶה שֶׁהָיָה רוֹעֶה וְהִנִּיחַ עֶדְרוֹ וּבָא לָעִיר, וּבָא זְאֵב וְטָרַף, וּבָא אֲרִי וְדָרַס – אֵין אוֹמְרִים: אִילּוּ הָיָה שָׁם הָיָה מַצִּיל, אֶלָּא אוֹמְדִין אוֹתוֹ אִם יָכוֹל לְהַצִּיל – חַיָּיב, וְאִם לָאו – פָּטוּר. וְאַמַּאי? נֵימָא לֵיהּ: אִי הֲוֵית הָתָם הֲוָה מִקַּיַּים בִּי ״גַּם אֶת הָאֲרִי גַּם הַדּוֹב הִכָּה עַבְדֶּךָ״!

Rav Sheshes raises an objection from a baraisa: In the case of a shepherd who was herding the animals of others, and he left his flock and came to the town, and in the meantime a wolf came and tore an animal to pieces, or a lion came and trampled one of the flock, we do not say definitively that had he been there he would have rescued them and therefore he is liable due to his absence. Rather, the court estimates with regard to him: If he could have rescued his animal by chasing a beast of this kind away, he is liable, as his departure from the scene was certainly a contributing factor to the damage. If not, he is exempt from liability. According to Shmuel’s opinion, why is the shepherd exempt from liability? Let the owner say to him: Had you been there, the following verse would have been fulfilled for me: “Your servant smote both the lion and the bear” 

מִשּׁוּם דַּאֲמַר לֵיהּ: אִי הֲוֵית חֲזֵית לְאִיתְרְחוֹשֵׁי לָךְ נִיסָּא, הֲוָה (אִיתְרְחִישׁ) [מִיתְרְחִישׁ] לָךְ נִיסָּא כְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן דּוֹסָא דְּמֵתְיָין עִיזֵּי דּוּבֵּי בְּקַרְנַיְיהוּ. וְנֵימָא לֵיהּ: נְהִי דִּלְנִיסָּא רַבָּה לָא הֲוָה חֲזֵינָא – לְנִיסָּא זוּטָא חֲזֵינָא? קַשְׁיָא

The Gemara answers: This is because the shepherd could say to the owner: If you were worthy of a miracle occurring to you, a miracle would have indeed occurred to you as it did to Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa, when his goats brought bears impaled on their horns without any assistance on the part of a shepherd (see Ta’anit 25a). The Gemara asks: And let the owner say to him: Granted that I was not worthy of a great miracle, but of a small miracle I was worthy. The Gemara concludes: Indeed, this is a difficult question and challenge to this opinion.

Tosafos (“Le-Nisa”) asks, why does the Gemara even have a question comparing the wolf attack to the locusts? We already established earlier that the operative principle is that prayers require specificity in order to have impact. The landlord can claim he prayed for a productive crop, but who says he could have foreseen a wolf attack that he prayed specifically to overcome? Therefore Shmuel might never assert that a miracle might have occurred when the wolf attacked, even though he says the landlord could make such a claim by the locust.

Tosafos answers that Shmuel’s case was even when there was no direct prayer for a certain crop, because the landlord asked the tenant farmer to plant as he wished. Even so, without a specific prayer, Shmuel held that the landlord can argue he might have benefited from a miraculous intervention saving him from the grasshoppers if only the tenant farmer hadn’t been negligent and planted something. According to Tosafos, Shmuel’s rule was not prayer-dependent, but a miracle that could come even without prayer. This is why the Gemara had a genuine contradiction from the case of the wolf attack.

Rav Ruderman ZT’L elaborated on the implications of this Gemara in terms of prayer and the power of speech (Sichas Avodas Halevi 63). First, we see that there is power to the specifics of prayer. Second, we see from Tosafos, that not only is a misdirected prayer diluted, such as praying for a wheat crop when a barley crop was planted, even a general “one-size-fits-all” prayer is not effective. So much so that Shmuel’s argument for the landlord that the miracle could have occurred in regard to the locust is equal to arguing that the shepherd might have miraculously defeated the wolves. The fact that he gave a general prayer for any crop was equivalent to not praying at all, and thus the locust attack could be compared to and questioned regarding the unforeseen wolf attack. 

(By the way, this is a proof to support the customary insistence that all family members get named in a Mishebeirach, instead of blanket boiler-plate “the whole family”, or “the whole congregation.” It seems that specificity is important in prayers.)

Rav Ruderman goes on to give other examples of how certain aspects of prayer are formulaic, following hidden mystical rules employing unknown levers and influence. He quotes the Vilna Gaon who said that Moshe Rabbenu had a tradition that God could never turn away from prayer that used the word “Na” (please) twice. This is why his prayer to alleviate Miriam’s leprosy was successful (Bamidbar 12:13), as it used the word “Na” twice. Furthermore, this explains why Hashem said to Moshe (Devarim 3:26), “Do not speak further to me about this matter” when he was begging to live long enough to enter the Land of Israel. Meaning to say, do not force my hand and use that word “Na”.

Even more fascinating, Rav Ruderman says that curses, stemming from the power of speech, can also follow rules and formulas. He explains, before Balak offered Bilaam a financial incentive, God forbade him from accompanying the elders of Midian on a mission to curse the Jews (Bamidbar 22:12). Yet, after Balak offers his treasures, God allows him to go (ibid 20). Why is this so? Because at first when Bilaam had an inclination to curse the Jews, it was so to speak, “lishmah”, because he was not promised any money. The second time, however, there was a financial incentive contaminating his own “spiritual“ foci. Even God himself was unwilling to unleash the raw power of Bilaam’s first curse that would have stemmed from a certain purity of intention.

We have seen in this discussion how even the will of God, on some level, is influenced by the mysterious and powerful effects of human consciousness, intention and our words.


Niddah and Trauma

Our Gemara on Amud aleph homiletically interprets the verse (Devarim 28:3), “Blessed are you when you enter.” as referring to a husband who returns home from a trip. The blessing will be that he will not find her in an uncertain halachic state, where she had a situation of questionable impurity, stopping them from a physical reunification. 

Rashi here comments, “And of course the blessing applies that he wouldn’t return home and find her to be an outright and certain state of Niddah impurity.” 

However, the simple reading of the Gemara suggests there is something specifically problematic regarding an unresolved question regarding his wife’s status upon return. Indeed, Maharshal here suggests that the Gemara could be speaking specifically about an uncertain case of Niddah, as it is more challenging emotionally and frustrating, as one is tempted to rationalize that it is not really a problem. Ben Yehoyada offers two other clever peshatim as to why the Gemara specifically refers to an uncertain Niddah:

  1. Usually a doubtful scenario occurs from a stain. If so, it often is an irregular cycle, which makes the issue worse, since once she is ready to go back to Mikvah, her regular cycle may start all over again.
  2. It is natural to have a cycle, and therefore it would not be truly a blessing to defeat something that is part of a natural process. However, it is an appropriate blessing to be spared from an irregularity in the cycle that would cause a situation of doubt.

I have two other answers, which are in my opinion, even closer to the straight and simple peshat:

  1. States of Niddah that come due to a regular cycle is something that the couple can anticipate and manage. Either he won’t be disappointed when he comes home because he knows it’s likely that she will be Niddah, or he could schedule his trip differently. In any case, we can see that protection from a situation of sudden and doubtful staining is the concern and benefit that the blessing offers. 
  2. Perhaps there are women who would not be comfortable taking Niddah questions to the Rabbi. Or it could be referring to a situation where the husband himself is learned enough to rule on any particular questions and colors of blood, if he would be home. Therefore, when a man is away on a trip, there’s a greater likelihood that he’ll return to his wife in the state of uncertain Niddah status, since she may have had questions that she could not get answered. (And some questions literally require the light of day to resolve, so if he came home at dusk, he would not be able to rule on certain questions, Niddah 20b.) So the blessing is that she doesn’t have any complications while he is away and no questions, so when he returns, they could be intimate that night. 

Family purity laws offer structure and regulation that can be helpful to couples, but for some people, the sudden onset of Niddah can be triggering from past abandonment traumas. In addition, the withdrawal of physical and romantic affections could be interpreted by the other spouse as, “You only care about me when we can be physical.” Sometimes the allegation is close to the truth, which requires introspection on the part of the other spouse and repair. However, other times, it might be the spouse’s genuine and healthy effort to manage his or her own impulses and temptations. Yet, it still can be experienced as a painful abandonment. A spouse that tends toward perfectionistic and religious rigidity might over interpret the restrictions, and distance their spouse more than necessary. Usually perfectionistic and religiously scrupulous individuals have convincing arguments for their logic. The problem is usually not their reasoning, the problem is that it is not balanced with empathy and openness to the other person’s perspective and experience. The halacha might be the same, but how the message is delivered and enacted makes a world of difference.

These areas of halacha require sensitivity and respect for each person’s emotional needs, attachment, styles, and fears about religious transgression. One spouse might cope with the difficulties of losing sexual and intimate comfort by dissociating and numbing out, while another might become even more intense and reach out for stronger connection. When an unhealthy couple is lacking in respect and collaboration, each party will tend to minimize and disrespect, and even pathologize the other person’s needs. One will be accused of being excessively scrupulous, and the other will be accused of being unbalanced and too needy. Neither is fair or reasonable, nor giving each person’s subjective needs and personality proper consideration. But healthy couples are able to collaborate and negotiate without excessive shaming or blaming, and maintain respect and compassion for different points of view and different emotional coping styles. Healthy couples also are not afraid to get guidance from a mutually respected rabbinic authority. 

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
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